What is Variegation?

The word, ‘Variegate,’ comes from Latin origin, meaning, “to make of various sorts of colors.” Variegation is a genetic mutation that occurs when two sets of chromosomal makeups are contained within one plant, and one set of genes is unable to produce chlorophyll, while the other set is. Generally, this type of variegation is known as Chimeric, because within one plant you have part of one set of cells, and part of another. This genetic mutation manifests as unique and unusual color patterns on a plant. 

Stable vs. Unstable Variegation.

When it comes to stability of a plant’s variegation, you may wonder if the plant will revert back to normal, or if it will continue to keep the same pattern throughout the plant’s life. There’s good and bad news here, because both scenarios can occur. Chimeras are genetically unstable, and have no rhyme or reason to their variegation patterns, and can change abruptly. We’re going to briefly go over sectorial variegation, mericlinal variegation, and periclinal variegation, which are three recognized types of Chimeras.

The mutation occurs in what is called the meristem of the plant. The meristem is an active growth point where cell division occurs, found at new shoots, and root tips. Variegation is defined by how many layers of meristem tissue are effected by the mutations, and where the mutation is located. For some visual aid, see this study from University of Florida.


A Monstera Albo Borsigiana displaying Sectorial Variegation.

What to look for when buying.

When you aim to purchase a variegated plant, I recommend looking for a specimen that has balanced variegation. All or mostly white specimens are higher maintenance, and can grow much slower, as they lack chlorophyll to photosynthesize light. The unaffected areas will work harder to keep the rest of the plant healthy. I urge against buying mostly or all white specimens, as their chances of survival are much lower than their balanced counterparts.

Sectorial Variegation

Sectorial Variegation occurs when the mutation is found within a section through multiple layers, rather than a single layer of plant tissue. This type of variegation is unpredictable, and chaotic in appearance, as every point of new growth can look different. For example, a Monstera Albo Borsigiana’s first leaf could have a very nice half white and half green pattern, known as a “Half Moon.” Then, your next leaf could be mostly green with one patch of white. Your third leaf could then resemble a very balanced, but scrambled pattern. This shows inconsistency in the genetic makeup of the plant as it grows. In the world of succulents, sectorial variegation can represent as a quarter of the plant being variegated, having half and half colors on individual leaves of the whole plant.


Periclinal Variegation

Periclinal variegation is known to be the most stable of the chimeras, as an entire single layer of the meristem is mutated. Propagation from periclinal mutants are likely to produce similar patterns and growth as the mother plant. Examples of Periclinal variegates would be

Mericlinal Variegation

Mericlinal variegation is similar to periclinal, in the fact that a single layer of cells are mutated. However, only a portion of the layer is mutated in this case. This can be a transition stage in growth where the meristem will either stabilize and become a periclinal, or lose the variegation.


Reflective or Blister Variegation

This type of variegation is what causes shiny, silver colors to appear on leaves, or in the veins. It is caused by an air pocket forming between a translucent epidermis (outer layer.), and normal dermis layer. When the light hits these sections, you’re met with a beautiful, silvery shine.

Chemically Induced Variegation.

Chemically inducing variegation in plants has been a long-occurring practice to meet large-scale demand for variegated plants. Some of the treatments are permanent, while others are not.

For this particular example, I will be talking about a non-permanent variety of chemically induced variegation. I noticed these beginning to appear in May of 2020 from some of my succulent vendors, however this was a big thing with Philodendron “Pink Congo.” What happens here, is the plants are treated with a chemical that stunts the plant’s ability to produce chlorophyll, until the plant has processed all the chemical, and then will revert to the natural colors of the effected plants.

These chemically induced plants are more or less the same price as their untreated counterparts, and sold as “variegated.” While it is an interesting science trick, the variegation will not last, and you should not pay a significantly inflated price for a plant that has been altered in this way.